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A Guerrillero-Gentleman: On Joaquim Câmara Ferreira | The Nation

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A Guerrillero-Gentleman: On Joaquim Câmara Ferreira

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Joaquim Câmara Ferreira

Joaquim Câmara Ferreira

The novelist Jorge Amado, who in the late 1940s edited the Communist newspaper Hoje with my grandfather, described him as “the opposite” of a Stalinist sectarian: “He didn’t proclaim to be a Bolshevik, telling others that they had to be of steel or denouncing them as petit bourgeois.” His lifelong friendship with the conservative politician Lucas Nogueira Garcez, a former classmate, is a case in point. Their fathers had been friends since studying engineering together at the Escola Politécnica. My grandfather lived with the arch-Catholic Garcez family when he left Jaboticabal to go to school in São Paulo. Family lore has it that one of Garcez’s younger sisters fell in love with him; the parents discovered their teenage romance and sent the girl to a Carmelite convent, where she spent the rest of her life as a nun. When Garcez was governor of São Paulo from 1951 to 1955, my grandfather resolutely fought his politics. He played an important role in the Strike of the 300,000 that paralyzed São Paulo in 1953. Yet their friendship endured. During the dictatorship, Garcez became the president of the party supporting the military regime. But when my uncle was snubbed for a job because of my grandfather, Garcez called President Garrastazu Médici and told him that he would resign unless the decision was reversed. Until his own death in 1982, he regularly brought flowers to my grandfather’s grave in the Cemitério da Consolação in São Paulo.

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How did the gentleman turn into a guerrillero? Leaving the Communist Party after more than thirty years cannot have been easy for my grandfather, who greatly admired its longtime leader, Luis Carlos Prestes. But I don’t see that there is a paradox. While surely not a violent man by nature, he didn’t shy away from violence when he deemed it necessary. In 1948, for example, he resisted with gun in hand the police attempt to shut down Hoje without a warrant. The shootout lasted all night, and at one point he called the office of São Paulo’s governor, Adhemar de Barros. “We’re forty-seven people ready to fight for the journal,” he yelled. “If a tragedy happens, the blood is on the governor’s hands.” A witness of the incident later commented: “This Câmara Ferreira with his demeanor of a polite intellectual can be ferocious!”

Since the end of the 1950s, Brazil’s Communist Party had moved away from the view that the only path to socialism was class war culminating in a revolution. The same goal, it now held, could also be attained through a democratic process. In a report, my grandfather explained this policy shift: the Soviet Union had built up enough power of deterrence to prevent the outbreak of an imperialist war; hence communism and capitalism could now compete in peace. If the Soviet Union showed that it could better promote the welfare of workers, it would become the model that workers the world over would try to emulate. In democratic countries, they could do so by electing socialist parties. 

For a time, my grandfather’s optimism about a democratic path to socialism seemed justified. In the early 1960s, President João Goulart was able to successfully channel social ferment both in the countryside and in the cities into support for his “basic reforms” agenda. Hailed by the Communist Party as the antechamber of the socialist revolution, Goulart’s program remains the most audacious socioeconomic reform proposed by a Brazilian government. (The reforms of the PT government under Lula and Dilma Rousseff pale in comparison.) Aiming as much to modernize the country as to combat social inequality, Goulart promoted land reform, education reform and greater state involvement in the economy. Goulart wanted to make idle agricultural land productive by redistributing it from latifundíarios (semifeudal landlords) to the landless masses. Large-scale investment in the public school system and literacy campaigns following the method of Paulo Freire, author of the famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, would create the skilled workforce needed for a modern economy, but also more equal opportunities for Brazilians. (To this day, lousy public schools and good but expensive private schools perpetuate Brazil’s social segregation.) And Goulart set limits on the profits that US companies and other foreign multinational corporations could transfer out of Brazil. In 1963, he held a referendum about restoring presidential power (which had been curtailed by opponents under a temporary parliamentary agreement) in order to implement these basic reforms. The turnout was 64 percent, of which 80 percent voted in favor—an overwhelming majority. A year later, Goulart was ousted by the military coup.

The degree of American involvement in the coup is a matter of debate. US Ambassador Lincoln Gordon had been sending alarming cables to Washington warning that Brazil might become “the China of the 1960s” and that Goulart was plotting to “seize dictatorial power” with the support of the communists. He hailed the coup as “the single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century.” Meanwhile, the CIA had been involved in covert operations to destabilize the government, from training officers of the Brazilian army to mobilizing street protests. President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Brother Sam to help overthrow Goulart. The Americans dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region; made guns, fuel and other military supplies available to the Brazilian army; and were ready to launch airstrikes and to land Marines in São Paulo. (Among the officers in charge of the logistics was Paul Tibbits, the pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.) In the end, though, the Americans didn’t need to get their hands dirty: the Brazilian generals managed to destroy the country’s democracy on their own. After the coup, a CIA agent candidly anticipated “a greatly improved climate for foreign investments.”

The dictatorship put a violent end to the peaceful democratic transformation of Brazil. For my grandfather, Carlos Marighella and many others, the generals enforced the political and economic interests of Brazil’s plantation owners and industry bosses, as well as their American allies, against the will of the Brazilian people, who had unequivocally supported Goulart’s reform agenda in the 1963 referendum. Over time, the violence increased. Under the regime’s first two presidents—Gen. Castelo Branco (1964–67) and Gen. Costa e Silva (1967–69)—its course did not yet seem settled. In 1968, however, it faced a number of serious challenges: a wave of strikes in São Paulo and Minas Gerais slowed down production in the country’s industrial centers, and after police killed a protesting student, 50,000 people turned out to express their outrage at the funeral. The tensions culminated in the Passeata dos 100 Mil (the March of the 100,000) in Rio de Janeiro, where many prominent artists, writers and intellectuals joined the calls for an end to the dictatorship. Meanwhile, the armed resistance began a campaign of “expropriations,” mostly bank heists, to fund its activities. The regime’s response came in December in the form of the Ato Institucional 5 (AI-5). The decree closed Congress and state parliaments indefinitely, enforced strict censorship and suspended the right to habeas corpus. From then on, the police could imprison and torture without trial anyone suspected of opposing the government. AI-5 set the stage for what journalist Elio Gaspari called the ditadura escancarada: the blatantly authoritarian regime under Gen. Garrastazu Médici. From 1969 to 1974, he unleashed the full repressive apparatus built up in earlier years to crush the “enemy” within. During these anos de chumbo (leaden years), hundreds were murdered or “disappeared,” while thousands more lost their jobs in the course of the anticommunist purges, were imprisoned and tortured, or fled into exile.

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